Why Adults Throw Toddler Temper Tantrums
“This is ridiculous,” James said after witnessing his soon-to-be ex-wife losing it because she didn’t get her way. She sounded like a 2-year-old who didn’t get a piece of candy with the same level of irrational reasoning. Her arms were flinging around, she threw a few small objects, her voice raised a couple of octaves, and she puffed out her chest as if she was ready to fight. All of this was over a location adjustment for exchanging their child.
This wasn’t the first time James watched this display. In fact, her erratic behavior greatly contributed to their pending divorce. Her fits of rage were unpredictable, volatile, forceful, absurd, and even threatening. He encouraged her to get help but she refused, insisting that if he just did what she asked then she would never get mad.
Desperate to keep the peace, James even tried giving into her demands. But it was not enough. The more he caved, the more she expected. He became a shell of himself and was embarrassed by his own tolerance for her behavior. Finally after she destroyed his new phone, he had enough of the abuse and decided to end the marriage.
Yet for his daughter’s sake, he wanted to understand why she continued to rage. So he sought out counseling and discovered several possibilities. Here they are:
- Personality: Part of the definition of a personality disorder is an inaccurate perception of reality. When this distorted perception is revealed, the outcome is frequently anger. There are nine different personality disorders but the most likely candidates for this type of behavior are those with narcissistic, paranoid, dependent, borderline, obsessive-compulsive, and anti-social (sociopath and psychopath) personalities.
- Addiction: Addicts need justification to continue to abuse their substance of choice. Their cycle of exploding and then abusing a substance to self-soothe means they need a constant flow of upsetting events in order to rationalize their addiction. Sometimes, their irrational rage is the first evidence of a hidden addiction.
- Diversion: In order to avoid exposure in another area, a person might subconsciously generate a diversion tactic. The problem is that the diversion needs to be so exaggerated that others lose their focus. Thus an extreme rage is born out of necessity.
- Regression: A popular but frequently forgotten defense mechanism is regression. When things get too difficult and a person feels vulnerable, defense mechanisms kick in as a way of self-preservation. Regression is a return to child-like behavior as a way to avoid adult-like reality and responsibility.
- Attention: Just like a toddler, an adult who feels deprived of attention might act out inappropriately. Some adults don’t care if the attention they received is positive or negative, they just want to be at the center by commanding an audience through a tantrum.
- Shame: Hidden shame or embarrassment is an underlying reason for some explosions. A past history of sexual abuse is a common shameful event. When a person feels triggered by their past trauma, a natural reaction is to come out swinging. This fight response is so instinctive that in severe cases of PTSD, a person might not even realize or remember that they have exploded.
- Guilt: Sometimes the root of an angry rage is guilt. When a person feels guilty for their behavior or actions, an immature response is to react in anger. While the anger they feel is really more about themselves than another person, it is far easier to project that anger onto others than it is to take responsibility for an improper behavior or action.
- Fear: Once again, an immature response to feelings of fear is to respond with anger. Instead of admitting to being afraid which can look weak in some eyes, a person might do the opposite by aggressively exploding in anger. This suppresses the fear only temporarily but it does deflect others from seeing the hidden fear.
- Manipulation: “What are they getting out of this,” is question that should be asked to check for manipulative behavior. If a person benefits in some way by acting out, they will continue to act out. It is simple cause and effect behavior. To modify this, stop giving the person what they want and they will naturally find another way of obtaining it.
James realized that there wasn’t just one explanation for the explosions but rather several. Even though his marriage ended, by developing some compassion from a distance, he was better able to help his daughter navigate the rantings.
Hammond, C. (2018). Why Adults Throw Toddler Temper Tantrums. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 23, 2018, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2018/01/why-adults-throw-toddler-temper-tantrums/